Monday, November 28, 2005

Burnt by the Sun * * * *

Burnt by the Sun is set in the early 1930s in Russia. Stalin took power in the early 1920s after Lenin died. Shortly after the ‘cleansings’ began during which those with ties to the imperialist West, business owners, the middle class and certain ethnic groups were executed, sent to labor camps, or otherwise re-educated. By the 1930s, Stalin began executing his military officers, his right-hand men in the 1920s. He was to carry out two such purges of senior military officers before WWII. This film follows one day in the life of one such military officer, Sergei Kotov.

Sergei has a rare day off at his wife’s family’s dacha (country house). It is restful summer day, full of the things one does with extended family on vacation. A trip to the river for a swim, soccer in the afternoon, getting dressed up for lunch on the patio, reading and telling stories with his daughter, a sauna bath with his wife and child, laughing and lounging.

****spoilers below******

A visitor shows up at the dacha. It is Mitya, a young man who had lived nearby and had spent many happy days at this house, and was once the officer’s wife's lover. That was before she met Sergei, and before Sergei himself sent Mitya for a ‘re-education’, to France to spy for the Soviet Union, some ten years earlier. Sergei was at that time in the NKVD political police (predecesor to the KGB), and Mitya was a 27-year-old who had fought for the White Army and was from a middle class family. Mitya was called in and given the choice of prison/execution or doing the NKVD's bidding. To Sergei, it was simply the way it was. They sent many such young men away.

But now the tables are turned. Mitya is now in the NKVD, and it is Sergei who is on the execution list. We never see this. This film follows Sergei until shortly after he is arrested. But the movie is deeply unsettling, for me almost nauseating. The knowledge that Sergei’s life and his family’s life are going to be destroyed in one fell stroke is terrifying. The sun is warm, the day is lazy, and soon he will be in prison, tortured, forced to sign a confession for ludicrous crimes, and then executed. I feel deeply sympathetic to him in the movie, yet I'm conflicted about such sympathy. This man is a high-ranking officer in the Bolshevik Army, a right-hand man of Stalin. He was involved with the ‘cleansings’ of the early 1920s. Heroic, brave, devoted to his family, but his past is murky.

The Russian Revolution ate its disciples. The title is a reference to this: burnt by the sun. I have often been moved by the stories of young idealist communists – the foot soldiers of the revolution. Not because I sympathized with their ideology, but because they were filled with a great glorious youthful idealism...which created a monster, a snake that brought out the most selfish, oppressive, and intolerant in human nature and then turned on the those idealistic souls that helped bring it to power. Nothing can say it better than the philosophical credo of Krylenko, back-then the soviet commissar (minister) of justice: “We must execute not only the guilty. It is execution of the innocent that will really impress the masses!” He too perished in the Stalin era purges.

Starring: Oleg Menshikov (Mitya), Nikita Mikhalkov (Sergei), Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Marusia), Nadezhda Mikhalkova (Nadya; note she is the daughter of the actor who plays Sergei)

Things you might not know: Nikita Mikhalkov (the guy playing Sergei) is very famous in Russia, as an actor but more as a director. He has been called the 'Speilberg' of Russia. Biography here.

Available on Netflix.

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